The deadly derailment of an Amtrak train Tuesday hovered over an ongoing infrastructure debate the next day on Capitol Hill, where a bill to slash rail subsidies came under fire from Democrats who cited the disaster in opposing the cuts, while Republicans bristled at efforts to link the incident to Amtrak spending. The measure passed along partisan lines after the House committee repeatedly voted down Democratic amendments aimed at boosting funding for Amtrak.
At least seven people were killed and more than 200 injured when Northeast Regional Train 188, which travels between Washington, D.C., and New York, fell off the tracks on a curve while passing through Philadelphia.
At a previously scheduled House Appropriations markup of a Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill, Democratic members demanded more spending for capital investments in rail service and for agencies that oversee safety. The bill, which covers a variety of infrastructure and housing agencies and programs, would cut Amtrak funding to $1.13 billion from $1.4 billion.
At times the debate grew heated as Democrats, especially members from New York whose constituents are served by the Amtrak line that crashed, brought up the victims of the disaster in making their case for increased spending.
After Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) told the committee that Congress had “failed to invest in their safety,” an irate Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) accused him of exploiting the incident.
“You tied it directly to an accident and a tragedy and suggested because we hadn’t funded it that caused that accident and you have no idea what caused it – and that’s a shame,” Simpson said.
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), who noted that he’s ridden Amtrak exclusively to his Bronx district over his 25 years in the House, said that Congress should be open to the possibility that inadequate funding had contributed to the crash.
“We cut their budgets, we reduced their spending,” he said. “Maybe last night, while not mixing one tragedy with our local or in-House politics, maybe last night is something we should look at to see what if any of that is caused by infrastructure deficiencies.”
The cause of the crash remains unknown, making it impossible to determine for now what, if any, regulations or improvements might have prevented it. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading an investigation into the accident, dispatched 20 officials to the scene on Tuesday night.
Congressman Mario Diaz Balart (R-Fla.), chair of the THUD Subcommittee, counseled patience while the House waited for more details about the crash before discussing funding changes.
“We do not know the circumstances, there will be an investigation,” he said. “The concept that it is always, no matter what, more money is the solution is not always the case.”
Republican members joined Democrats in supporting the NTSB investigation, but told colleagues their hands were tied by sequestration limits Congress had previously passed with bipartisan support that limited their ability to increase spending on transportation and housing across the board.
“Yes these numbers are tough to live with,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) acknowledged. “The Budget Control Act, the law of the land now, dictates what we can and can’t do.”
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) urged colleagues to consider not only Tuesday’s Amtrak disaster but a February Metro North Crash in New York that killed six people, in opposing the proposed cuts. While she acknowledged the cause of the crash was undetermined, she added that it was “very clear that cutting the funding drastically does not help improve services at Amtrak.”
As Democratic members pointed out in their remarks, President Obama included a major increase in Amtrak spending to $2.45 billion next year in his February budget as part of a proposed six-year $28.5 billion investment that would include safety upgrades for commuter rail routes and repairs to the Northeast corridor that included NE Regional 188. Rep. Chaka Fattah (R-Pa.) filed an amendment in Wednesday’s hearing to increase funding to the level outlined in Obama’s budget, but it failed on a 21-30 vote. On the other end of the spectrum, the House shot down an amendment in March to eliminate Amtrak subsidies entirely on a bipartisan 272-147 vote.
House and Senate leaders sidestepped the funding issue with more neutral statements mourning the victims of the crash. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid each took to the floor to praise first responders who treated the wounded at the site.
“We will make sure that we follow through on the difficulties that caused this,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters at a weekly GOP leadership press conference.
By coincidence, the crash occurred during “Infrastructure Week,” which brought a host of trade groups, labor unions, and mayors to Capitol Hill to lobby for expanded infrastructure spending. Former Obama administration Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who co-chairs an alliance of pro-infrastructure groups called Building America’s Future, opened a previously scheduled press conference on their efforts with an acknowledgment of the crash and its victims.
LaHood was hesitant to link the accident to the Amtrak funding debate on Wednesday, telling reporters he wanted the NTSB to investigate the accident before drawing conclusions. But he did lament Congress’ tendency to pass bills in response to disasters rather than investing in repairs and safety ahead of time.
“People in that building right there [need to] show a little vision and leadership and pass a transportation bill before another bridge falls down, before a road collapses,” he said. “Let’s not wait until there’s a crisis that causes them to take action.”
Amtrak funding has long been a contentious topic in Washington and accidents have been an impetus for spending bills in the past. President George W. Bush sought to eliminate federal subsidies for the rail network, but ended up signing a bipartisan five-year $12 billion bill to address safety issues after a 2008 crash in Chatsworth, California that killed 25 people.